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Friday, January 25, 2019

Concert Review: The Young Magician's Guide to the Piano

Seong-Jin Cho plays Pictures at an Exhibition.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho returned to Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night.
Photo by Harald Hartmann.
The pianist Seong-Jin Cho is a fast-rising star on the international virtuoso circuit. On Tuesday night, regular programming at Carnegie Hall resumed with Mr. Cho's second recital at that venue. He came to play, armed with a formidable program of works by Schubert, Debussy and Mussorgsky.

The concert started with the Wanderer Fantasy, a four-movement exploration and extrapolation of thematic material from the composer's song The Wanderer. This is the most difficult work for the piano in Schubert's canon, one that eluded even the composer's own ability to play what he had written. It consists of four movements, each a set of variations in themselves on the "Wanderer" theme, but also making a rigorous musical argument in strict classical form.

The complex musical arguments over the four movements had no terrors for Mr. Cho. He combined a firm attack of the keyboard with a light touch in the lyric passages, letting the long, sweeping arcs of melody flow from the right hand even as the left provided robust support. The entry of the second theme in the first movement seemed to float over the busy left-hand figures, each embellished with a the delicacy of a pointillist brush.

Impressionism is the word most frequently associated with Debussy, whose Images were the next work on the program. Here, Mr. Cho went from the full and fierce flower of early Romanticism to a dreamier, more lucid state. Limpid chords flowed from his left hand, answered by descending figures from the right. Then the first sprays of decorative notes spiralled up, the notes coming in a torrent against hushed, questioning chords. The result was hypnotic.

A selection from the first book of Debussy Preludes followed, carefully chosen and molded into a cohesive narrative by the artist. They were drawn from the first book but presented slightly out of regular order. "Le Vent dans la Plaine" became a quick opening movement, and the delicate dance of "La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin", with its theme at once lamenting and hopeful, provided a slow movement. The chords of the  gentle "Des pas sur la niege" seemed to hang in the air, and the swirling surge of "Ce qu'a vu le Vent D'Ouest" provided a closure to this magic spell of sound.

Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is more familiar to Western audiences in the elaborate orchestral transcription by Maurice Ravel. Here, Mr. Cho made a convincing argument for this piece in its original form, a set of connected piano impressions each based on an artwork by the composer's friend Viktor Hartmann. In Mr. Cho's hands, the power and thunder of movements like "Gnomus" and "Bydlo" contrasted with the moody Romanticism of "The Old Castle" and the murky "Catacombs."

This is demanding stuff for ten fingers, and Mr. Cho rose to it, racing through the "Tuelleries," recreating the jabbering characters of "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmeuyel" and pounding out a klaxon of notes in "The Hut of Baba Yaga" with the force of an exploding alarm clock. This led directly into the magisterial "Great Gate of Kiev", interweaving that theme with the original "Promenade" melody to impressive effect. The concert ended with two encores: a Chopin prelude and the tenth of Liszt's Transcendental Etudes. If that's any indication of where this young artist is heading, some very great things are yet to come.

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